What were the main digital policy regional updates in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region? This space brings you the main updates month by month, summarised by the observatory's curators.
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Curated by Noha Fathy
Turkish authorities use ‘Country Withheld Content’ tool to target Twitter accounts
4 Aug 2019 | Freedom of expression, Other human rights
On 4 August, the Ankara Criminal Court of Peace ordered the blocking of four Twitter accounts in Turkey. This was allegedly done to protect national security and public order in reference to Law No. 5651 on the Regulation of Publications on the Internet. The four accounts belong to Oya Ersoy (a member of the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP) - the People's Democratic Party), the Turkish music band ‘Grup Yorum’ - known for their political songwriting, and two accounts related to the Gezi Park protest (Taksim Gezi Parki and Gezi Savunmasi). Twitter has yet to comply with the court order. The four accounts are among hundreds of other accounts which were targeted by Turkish authorities using Twitter’s ‘Country Withheld Content’ tool which allows the censoring of content on a country by country basis. The tool has previously been abused by authoritarian regimes to clampdown on online freedoms.
Influencer sentenced to seven years in prison over Twitter post
6 Aug 2019 | Freedom of expression, Other human rights
Turkish Twitter celebrity Pınar Karagöz (also known as Pucca) was accused by the government of advocating drug consumption and attempting to use social media to overthrow the government. In 2018, Pucca tweeted, ‘hundreds of poor people are able to earn their bread by selling drugs’ in reference to a Netflix series about the Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Her prison sentence was reduced from seven years to five years and ten months, in addition to a fine of USD$ 11 000. She was further accused of using social media to overthrow the government and according to the court, ‘taking into account the impact of social media in society, it is possible to conclude that in some countries, social media has managed to overthrow the government by uniting people under specific ideologies.’ While many Internet users condemned such a sentence for being unfair and salient censorship by the Turkish authorities, others support the ruling and have accused Pucca of setting a bad example for the youth.
Human rights organisations denounce the clampdown on digital freedoms in Turkey
6 Aug 2019 | Freedom of expression, Other human rights
In a joint submission for Turkey’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), human rights organisations have condemned the crackdown on digital space by the Turkish authorities. In particular, the review pinpoints the mass blockings of websites and platforms. It notes that ‘State of Emergency Decrees’ have been used to remove and block websites without judicial oversight. Furthermore, judicial orders were issued to block more than 10 VPN services and at least 3 000 online articles. YouTube has been banned in the country since 2015 and Wikipedia has been blocked since 2017 for not removing content that alleges the Turkish government’s support of terrorist groups in Syria.
Turkish court blocks access to news websites
6 Aug 2019 | Other human rights, Freedom of expression
Bianet reported that the Ankara court has ordered the blocking of 136 websites on 16 July, including news outlets Bianet, ETHA news agency, Halkın Sesi TV, Özgür Gelecek, osp.org, geziyisavunuyoruz.org, Gazete Fersude, Yeni Demokratik Gençlik, Umut Gazetesi, Kızıl Bayrak, Marksist Teori, Direnişteyiz, and Mücadele Birliği and their online streaming services on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. ‘Notice no. 3096743 dated July 16, 2019, sent by the Ministry of Interior General Command of Gendarmerie requested access to the mentioned URL addresses be blocked on the ground that they constitute the offenses in Article 8/A of the Law No. 5651.’ However, at the time of publication, the order was not implemented, and the justification of the action was not made clear. Bianet announced that it had appealed the order. Such an action was condemned for censoring news and stifling the opposition. ‘We call on the Turkish authorities to stop their ongoing campaign of censorship of the country’s independent media and allow people to get their news from wherever they wish’, noted the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Programme Director, Carlos Martinez de la Serna.
UK’s Special Envoy Amal Clooney called upon to urge the government to pressure Bahrain into respecting human rights
8 Aug 2019 | Freedom of the Press, Freedom of expression, Other human rights
Several international and regional human rights organisations have called upon Special Envoy on Media Freedom, Amal Clooney, to spur on the UK government to pressure its ally Bahrain to protect freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The request comes in light of the restrictions on freedom of expression online by the Bahraini government which has been banning the activities of independent media outlets and amending the cybercrime law to restrict online freedoms. The new cybercrime law imposes vaguely defined crimes that clamp down on digital activism and political dissent. Earlier in June Twitter announced that such new measures would ‘pose a significant risk to free expression and journalism’ in Bahrain.
Local news websites in Algeria blocked
14 Aug 2019 | Freedom of expression, Other human rights
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), three independent news websites were interrupted in Algeria amid protests calling for political reform that erupted five months ago. These websites include Interlignes Algérie, Observ’Algérie, and Algérie Patriotique which disappeared between 25 July and 5 August. ‘It is no accident that several Algerian online news outlets are reporting disruptions during a historic protest movement. Authorities and telecommunications companies in Algeria must put an end to arbitrary, opaque restrictions on digital news’, highlighted CPJ Middle East and North Africa Programme Coordinator, Sherif Mansour. Furthermore, according to NetBlocks, YouTube, Google Translate, Hangouts, and other Google services were reportedly interrupted separately for several hours on 8 August in an outage ‘consistent with methods used to restrict online content’.
Saudi Arabia provides ‘Smart Hajj’ for pilgrims
16 Aug 2019 | Critical infrastructure
Saudi Arabia caters for the information and communications technology (ICT) needs of 2.5 million pilgrims by providing critical ICT infrastructure to support reliable services and access to data-heavy mobile applications. Additionally, ICT-enabled innovations including 5G, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality were deployed to manage the crowds by analysing photos and videos, parcel transport services, and to facilitate communication between government sectors. ‘This year, the Ministry launched the second version of the initiative entitled “Smart Hajj”. The initiative aims to provide innovative services to pilgrims through different digital platforms and applications, and includes a list of the key interactive applications that help accurately introduce pilgrims to the rituals of Hajj pilgrimage and take advantage of technology in learning about steps for moving between the Holy Places’, noted the Minister of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT), Abdullah Al-Sawahah.